“It began to seem that one would have to hold in the mind forever two ideas which seemed to be in opposition. The first idea was acceptance, the acceptance, totally without rancor, of life as it is, and men as they are: in the light of this idea, it goes without saying that injustice is a commonplace. But this did not mean that one could be complacent, for the second idea was of equal power: that one must never, in one’s own life, accept these injustices as commonplace but must fight them with all one’s strength. This fight begins, however, in the heart and it now had been laid to my charge to keep my own heart free of hatred and despair. " -- from Notes of a Native Son
Occasionally as an undergrad with a very undistinguished academic record, there were still moments I could point to as burst of light that, added together, made up my education. One of those moments was encountering James Baldwin and grappling with his words no matter how much they made me squirm - like the kid with the hangover hearing the fire and brimstone sermon on Sunday morning. (Having been raised in a church with a conservative, fundamentalist bent - I knew both feelings.)
Carrying around Notes of a Native Son and The Fire Next Time sometimes drew looks, a concerned 'why are you reading that,' cringeworthy as the opening supper scene of American History X.
And as a kid growing away from the handed down 'wisdom' of the community where white supremacy was both overt and subtle, and even in the words of those who passed for progressive - I don't think I could express it, not knowing how to stand up to the people who were the first to teach right from wrong, how to make expressing anger a bridge rather than a fire under a bridge.
Baldwin writes in a later work, “America’s sense of reality is dictated by what it is trying to avoid.” Which seems to be the spirit of 'why are you reading that?'
I'm aware that attempting to write about this can sometimes come across as an apologetics for one's own privilege or ignorance. I'm also aware that dealing with truths that make us uncomfortable won't happen when worrying about what reading a certain book or dealing awkwardly with an insight looks like.
I hope if anything positive can come out of this year it's in engaging ideas that make us uncomfortable and that suppressing that righteous anger in favor of 'civility' isn't building a bridge, it's just silently accepting a chasm.
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